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RTÉ’s credibility - Broadcaster has questions to answer

RTÉ HAS earned and enjoys a privileged position. It has informed and entertained us and it has helped us to reach decisions that have shaped our society.

Often, when nobody else would do it, it shone a light into the darker corners of our lives, bringing about significant social change.

By doing this over the years, and by doing it fairly, it has justified the status it has been afforded as a public sector broadcaster. We need to have absolute faith in the station’s integrity; we need to know that if it broadcasts something it has applied the most rigorous procedures to ensure that what it tells us is true.

That faith is being questioned because of the High Society programmes on cocaine abuse.

Programme maker Justine Delaney Wilson asserted during the series that she had been told by a government minister that he, or she, had used cocaine.

On RTÉ Radio, on October 4, she said she had retained a tape of that interview.

It now transpires that no such tape exists.

On Monday, five weeks after Ms Delaney Wilson’s Drivetime claim, Kevin Dawson, commissioning editor of RTÉ factual programmes, said that he never knew of the existence of such a tape or of earlier claims that it did exist.

Surely, if he thought it existed he would have insisted on hearing it before RTÉ broadcast such an incendiary claim about any politician?

That in the digital age he should rely on "contemporaneous notes" just adds to the concerns surrounding the effectiveness of the professional scrutiny applied by the broadcaster.

Mr Dawson’s admission that he is now "troubled" really does not sufficiently reflect the potential issues at play here — they are nothing less than the betrayal of the trust placed in him by RTÉ.

However, there is a great degree of reassurance to be taken from the fact that these worrying details were unearthed by one of the people who continually justifies the faith we all wish to place in RTÉ.

News at One’s Seán O’Rourke’s relentless questioning of Mr Dawson on Monday, and his absolute focus on the issues at hand, was exactly the kind of broadcasting that has earned RTÉ the reputation we all hope it is in a position to sustain.

Public sector broadcasting is under threat all across the world and has many enemies. It is one of the jewels in a democratic society. That is why its integrity and standards must be of the very highest order.

As Mr Dawson put it, RTÉ does indeed have questions to answer.